By Rahaman Onike

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Out of the abundant principles guiding the usage, there are four lexical rules that are germane to effective writing.  Any writer that ignores any of the rules does so at his own peril.  Even the lexicographers apply the rules during the compilation of dictionary.  Of course, the generative or creative feature of the dictionary is made largely possible by the existence of several lexical rules, the principal among which are the four to be discussed and analyzed hereunder.

Every writer therefore needs to master and understand the correct application of the four lexical rules and this includes the rule of morphological derivation, rule of semantic transfer, rule of conversion and the rule of collocation.

No one can be described as a great writer without the mastery of the lexical rules.  The first of the four lexical rules is the rule of morphological derivation.  This is a rule that involves a change in the morphological specification.  This rule makes it possible for new words to be formed with the use of affixes.  Thus, we have ‘child’, childish’ and ‘childhood’ , the rule makes it possible for us  to add –ish and –hood (suffixes) to the noun child in order to give us two extra words.  ‘Childish’ is adjective, while ‘childhood’ is noun.  In some cases, there may be no change in syntactic function.  For example, the difference between ‘aunt’ and ‘auntie’ is a matter of stylistic variation alone.

What this implies is that English is richly endowed with a good number of grammatical elements which are constantly used in forming new words out of existing words/roots.  These elements are referred to as ‘affixes’, which are subdivided into prefixes and suffixes; in some languages (not English) infixes occur (Ayodele S.O. et al 1990).

Through  the process of affixation, nouns and verbs can be formed both from nouns and from verbs.  In the word, ‘unfaithfulness’, -ful and –ness are suffixes respectively which have been added to the root morpheme ‘faith’; all the three morphemes are preceded by un-, a prefix.  The same thing applies to the words reread and reader, re- and –er are prefix and suffix respectively.  Affixation is thus a productive process of forming new words from existing ones.  Many adverbs are formed from adjectives with the suffix – ly, while in satellite, – like is used in other cases – godlike, hairline etc.

Let’s look at other relevant examples: one can create a new word from the word throne by adding the affix en- to it to get the new word enthrone.  Also, we can add an affix –ize to the word hospital to form the word hospitalize.  This process has been used to produce several new words into the language.  What this means is that these new words have been added to the existing words in the language to increase the vocabulary of the language.

In applying the rule of morphological derivation in forming new words, writers need to consider principle pf correctness, principle of acceptability and intelligibility factor.When the rule of prefixation is appropriately applied, we tend to generate  new words such as amoral being the combination of a + moral, antenatal formed with the combination of ante + natal,  the word underestimate produced by combining  under + estimate, renew being the combination or re + new among other relevant examples (Wiredu, 2006).

Suffixation demands that a user of language must know when and how to add suffixes to already existing words in order to create new words e.g. mile + age to form the word mileage, tribe + al to produce tribal, social + ite to generate the new word socialite, book + ish to form bookish, act + or to produce the word actor etc.

The second lexical rule is the rule of conversion.  By nature and characteristics, the rule of conversion involves change in syntactic function without a corresponding change in morphological specification.  In this process, a new word is created in the language simply by changing the word from its original part of speech to another without adding any affix.  For example, the verbs to drink, to bite, to kill, to hope, to pad etc can be used as noun following the rule of conversion e.g. I had a cold drink of beer; he took a bite of the bread; the hunter brought home a huge kill yesterday; I have some hope in the future; this chair has a fine pad.

For the avoidance of doubts, the rule of conversion applies when one uses the word ‘man’ which is ordinarily a noun to serve as verb without adding any affix to it as in “you have been employed to man this office”.  Another example is the word ‘shoulder’.  This word has always existed as a noun and can be used as a verb following the rule e.g. can David shoulder this responsibility?  Thus, shoulder as a verb has become a new word to be added to existing words in the language.  Other relevant application of rule of conversion includes use of market which is ordinarily a noun can be used as verb, the word author which is originally noun  is now acceptable as verb.

There are some words which are originally used only as verb but are now  being used as nouns e.g. You will be bored with his speech.  In the given sentence, the word bore is used as verb.  The same word bore can be used as a noun thus: What a bore peter has become.  Another example of conversion of verb to noun; Nelson’s release from prison.  The word release which is originally verb is used as noun.  To use the same word as verb, we can have sentence thus: They have released Nelson from prison.

Through the rule of conversion, some words that are originally adjectives can be used as verb e.g. the word ‘calm’ is an adjective as in John appears quite calm today.  With the rule of conversion, the adjective ‘calm’ can assume the status of verb as in “Do calm down your wife”.  Another process of converting adjective to verb could be seen in the sentence that reads: Who dirtied my shirt?  If the word dirty is to be used as adjective, we can have sentence that reads: “This is a dirty shirt”.

The word must which is known in English as an auxiliary verb specifically a modal can be used as noun e.g. Passing the interview is a must if you want to work here.  Whereas ‘must’ ordinarily performs auxiliary function if not for its conversion e.g. The children must sleep by 9:00pm.  This explains its original use as modal auxiliary verb.

The third lexical rule is the rule of semantic transfer.  It is also referred to as rule of meaning transfer.  Semantic transfer is a lexical rule that causes a change in meaning only.  An example is the rule of metaphorical extension.  An adjective like healthy is purely on its home ground when used with a human noun as in healthy child, healthy man etc but it is frequently used in a transferred sense of ‘giving health’, that is, ‘a healthy climate’, ‘a healthy environment’ etc.  In another contexts, the word ‘crane’ which is a bird has now come to be used in the sense of ‘birdlike machine’ a kind of transfer of meaning.  The same rule explains why the names of authors can be considered as standing for their works e.g. I enjoy Soyinka and Achebe immensely which means “the works of Soyinka and Achebe”.  Similar to that is the sentence that reads: I’ve been reading some Shakespeares and other classics meaning “Shakespeare’s and classical works”.

Rule of semantic transfer is about metaphorical expressions.  When the words “like” and “as” are dropped out of a figure, and the primary and secondary terms are jammed together, the figure becomes a metaphor.  A metaphor does not state a comparison, but it suggests a comparison (Bearsley, 2000).  The simplest sort of metaphor has the form “X is Y”:He is a wolf”.  The secondary term doesn’t have to be a predicate, however.  It may be an adjective (“He has a wolfish appetite”), or a verb (“He wolfs his food”).

A metaphor also compares two essentially dissimilar things, but instead of saying that one thing is like another, it equates them e.g. “My mother was a beacon illuminating my childhood”.  In this metaphor, the subject mother is equated with, and enhanced by, the image of a beacon illuminating my childhood.  With one effective image, the student sums up his feelings about his mother (Kingzner and Mandell, 2000).

The rule of semantic/meaning transfer applies  when a sentence is metaphorical with two characteristics.  First, it must be literally false.  That is, the subject cannot possibly have the characteristics designated by the secondary term.  Second, a metaphorical expression may be (it does not have to be) true on the level of connotation.  That is, the subject can have the characteristics connoted by the secondary term.  Let’s look at the Architectural slogan of an earlier decide: “A house is a machine for the living”.  In the ordinary sense of the term, a machine is something that does work; we apply some form of energy (muscular effort, coal, gasoline, falling water) to it, and by the motions of its parts it changes the energy into a different form.  This capacity is one of the characteristics designated by the term “machine”.  But a house is not a machine in this sense.  Second, the subject can have the characteristics connoted by the secondary term “machine”.  Machine connotes the characteristics of being useful, of being designed to fulfil certain specific functions; hence, a house can be a machine in this sense.

A noun-phrase may be called a metaphor, if it can be transformed into a metaphorical statement.  In this way we speak of “pork-barrel legislation”, “the voice of doom”, “a living death” as metaphors following the rule of semantic transfer.

Writers need’ to note the common distinction between a literal sense and a metaphorical sense of a term or expression.  The literal meaning of the word ‘pig’ is just its designation, that is, the characteristics of having four legs, having a shout and so forth.  If you say, “The animal in that pen is a pig”, this statement can be literarily true, an animal can have for legs.  In this context, the connotations of “pig” are not stressed.  But if you say, “That a man over there is a pig”, it is clear that this sentence cannot be literally true.  So, if this statement is to be true at all, it is not the designation but only the connotation of ‘pig’ that is being ascribed to the man.  In this case, “pig” is used metaphorically that means he is greedy, he is gross, he is dirty, he is fat and the word “pig” could be used to describe a fertile woman.

The fourth lexical rule is collocation.  This is the rule that governs how words fit into different linguistic environment.   It deals with association of ideas e.g. bird as a noun collocates with the verb flies, fish swims, frog jumps, dog barks, cats mew etc. (Palmer, 2002).

When words occur together, they acquire certain associations; for example, heavy smoker, rancid butter, rabid dog etc.  Some combinations are however awkward and impermissible; for example nice tree, eat the water, drink the stove etc.  Note that the companies words keep affect their meanings.  In a sentence like ‘the dog barks’ or ‘the cat mews’ are  meanings derive from the compatible combinations of dog + barks and cat + mews.  Confusion however sets in with combinations like nice + tree, eat + water and drink + stove.

Collocations are either free or fixed.  They are free when the combinations are flexible, while it is described fixed when it is rigid in structure and meaning.  Look at the following examples: ‘a freak of nature’ (not a monster of nature), keep the peace (not retain the peace), peace of mind (not peace of heart), bring to a halt (not drag to a halt), breach of the peace (not break of the peace) etc. Fixed collocations appear as idioms in both formal and informal writing (Odebunmi, 2001).

Some points can be made about this important concept of collocation in the study of vocabulary. One is that the incidence of false combinations such as ‘powerful tea’ or ‘strong car’ is rampant because of poor grasp of rules of collocation, poor vocabulary development and inadequate understanding of synonyms, antonyms, hyponymy and homonyms (Oloruntoba-Ojo, 1994).

In conclusion, every writer that desires to be efficient and effective needs to understand the four lexical rules and apply them in appropriate situational contexts and linguistic environment.

For proper grasp of rules, one must strive to read widely and be guided by good dictionary and standard   Grammar and usage textbooks.  It is not only by memorizing the four lexical rules that one will become a fantastic writer but this demands careful attention to the rules, constant practice and proper mentoring.  Until you have the grasp of the four lexical rules highlighted above, your claim to have the mastery of  the art of effective writing and public speaking will be questionable.



Ayodele S.O., A.L Oyeleye, S.O. Yakubu and D. A Ajayi (1990) General English – A course for the Tertiary Levels: Ibadan, paperback publishers, Nigeria limited.

Bradley H. (2000) Word-Making in English in W.L. Anderson and N.C. Stageberg (eds.) Introductory Readings on Language: New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston Inc.  pp 63-70

Kirszner L.G and S.R. Mandell (2000) The Holt Handbook: New York, Holt Rinehart and Winston Inc. pp. 304-306

Odebunmi A. (2001) The English Word and Meaning- An Introductory Text: Ogbomoso, Critical Sphere Publishers pp. 53-55

Oloruntoba-Oju T. (1994) Vocabulary: The English Lexicon in Obafemi O (ed.) New Introduction to English Language: Ibadan, Associated Book-Makers Nigeria Limited pp 71-75

Palmer F.R. (2002) Semantics: United Kingdom, Cambridge University Press pp 75-79

Wiredu J.F (1999) Organised English Structure: Ghana, Academic Publications pp 127-130

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